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Leadership and teamwork, Work and occupational

One on One…with Almuth McDowall

…with Almuth McDowall, Lecturer at the University of Surrey

07 May 2013

One moment that changed the course of your career
Realising that I tend to absorb other people’s feelings far too much to be a counsellor, and having wonderful lecturers who inspired me to go into occupational psychology – you know who you are!

One book that you think all psychologists should read
Families and How to Survive Them by Robin Skynner and John Cleese. It’s written as a conversation between a shrink and a client, and has countless episodes where you think ‘yep, that’s what family life is like…’.

One hero from psychology past or present
Ellen Kossek. She is the ‘I am not worthy’ scholar in my area of work–life balance. Ellen is hugely knowledgeable, a wonderful and engaging writer, passionate about making a difference to practice and living example that you don’t have to be nasty to rise to the top in academia.

One thing you would change about psychologists
Stop navel gazing! We are too introspective for our own good. We have to reach out to make an impact, otherwise happiness studies will continue to be done by economists.

One curious thing about work–life balance
That people still think work–life balance only concerns people with families. Singletons or childless employees have just as much of a right to a good balance as parents do.

One regret
The death of our first daughter – burying your child is the hardest thing a parent will ever have to do. But the experience made me what
I am now, and gave me compassion and insight which I did not have before.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
You have to love what you do, but look after yourself. Psychology can be surprisingly hard on people. A lot of our work is in our head, and it’s sometimes tricky to switch all the thinking off. Find something to balance out all the mind work – for me, that’s roller-blading!

One cultural recommendation
Spot the psychology in everything you read and watch. John Rust once said to our class when I was an undergraduate that we can learn as much about the human psyche from the reading great classics with
a ‘psychology hat’ on as from much of the research we do.

One alternative career path you may have chosen
Continued as a fitness instructor and set up my own gym. Still tempting!

One problem that psychology should deal with
Why do so many high-profile dysfunctional leaders go right to the top?

One thing that makes me laugh
The film Still Crazy. Bill Nighy is priceless.

One inspiration
My maternal grandmother. She brought up two wonderful children during the Second World War. As my grandfather died in a prisoner of war camp her family was so poor that she literally had to forage for food in the nearby forest. Her strength and courage are what life is all about.

One treasured possession
I grew up in a still divided Germany. I lived in the West, but close friends in the East gave me a treasured children’s book which sits on my shelf looking rather battered. The book’s characters were clearly based on communist ideology – but I still love the idea of the sum being greater than its parts. I turn to it when I need cheering up!

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One great thing that psychology has achieved
Educating ourselves about the need to understand the power of the mind in a systematic and scientific way.

One hope for the future of psychology
That we will stop thinking in silos, share ideas and knowledge and think ‘big picture’.

One psychological superpower you’d like to have
To change thoughts to stop being so focused on the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which admittedly is how universities get money. A few years back, you’d bump into people and talk about whacky ideas for research studies. Now we mainly talk about just how difficult it is to get into high-impact journals, and which buttons we must press to do so. We need to encourage creativity and innovation to drive psychology forward, not publication for publication’s sake.

One way I ensure my own work–life balance
I exercise without fail every single day. It’s my time and my time only, and gives me the buzz to do what I do.

One of my greatest achievements
My family – my daughters and husband are everything to me.

One thing you are proud of
Convening our working group on work–life balance, which is funded by the Division of Occupational Psychology. This has brought together such wonderful academics and practitioners. I’m probably a better facilitator than hugely original researcher. But I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s OK! We need diverse skills in research and practice.

One challenge you think psychology faces
Too few value the rigour of our psychological training, and the skills we can bring to practice. We need to blow our own trumpet more, engage with external stakeholders and demonstrate impact to the wider society, to ensure that psychologists are a ‘go to’ provider of expertise.